What to do if I accidentally shoplifted?
November 10, 2012 8:47 AM   Subscribe

I accidentally left a store without paying for a few items. I realized it the next day, and I'm mortified. What should I do?

This is so embarrassing. I was in a CVS yesterday (with video monitoring). I didn't see any shopping baskets, and I had a lot of stuff, so I took off my fleece jacket and put my things in it (like one might carry something in an apron or atop a blanket, etc.). I shopped a little more. Then when I went to check out, I noticed some baskets in a corner that I hadn't seen when I entered, so I dumped my items in one of the baskets and double-checked to be sure I had everything in the basket. I checked out and took a cab home. Later, I put on my jacket and was horrified to realize that three small items had slipped into the jacket sleeve! I shoplifted without knowing it! I feel awful, but I'm terrified that if I return to the store they could charge me with something or at least detain me and chew me out.

I'm a college student, and I really can't afford a huge fine. I've been stressed and burnt out lately, and I don't want to be in trouble for trying to do the right thing - but I do want to do the right thing.

What should I do? Swallow the guilt and hope no one notices? Return and explain I forgot to pay for the items? Return and surreptitiously buy them?
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (35 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Return and explain. You'll make their day.
(Paranoid precaution: before you go, print out this thread & put it in a sealed envelope accompanying the items & money.)
posted by feral_goldfish at 8:51 AM on November 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Go back, tell them what happened, pay them. There's no store in the world that will prosecute or ban you for this.

Or, hell, don't even tell them. Just walk in with the stuff in a pocket, slip it out surreptitiously, and pay at the register.
posted by Etrigan at 8:52 AM on November 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

Were it a mom-and-pop I'd go back and apologize and pay. With CVS, who are very corporate, there's a chance you could get an employee or manager in trouble for neglecting to catch a "shoplifter" or god knows what other byzantine regulation structure they have for a time like this. Just pay more attention next time.
posted by griphus at 8:55 AM on November 10, 2012 [21 favorites]

What feral_goldfish said. You'll help to maintain their faith in human nature, which is a sorely needed commodity for anyone working a customer-service job.
posted by pont at 8:56 AM on November 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

I went to REI once and bought a bunch of stuff, and the checker just plain forgot to scan an item. I just went back the next day and went to the customer service desk with my receipt, explained what happened, and paid for the item. I think they were so surprised and grateful that I did something like that that fining me or getting me in trouble wasn't even part of the thought process.
posted by LionIndex at 8:56 AM on November 10, 2012

(On the other hand, for three small items, I doubt anyone will do anything more than just ring you up for them. Just make sure to bring the items so they can scan them.)
posted by griphus at 8:57 AM on November 10, 2012

Agree with the first two sentences of feral_goldfish.

I once got coffee from my local coffee shop and forgot to pay (I think it was Thanksgiving or some other crowded busy time when I had a lot on my mind).

I went back the next day and said, "I think I forgot to pay for my latte yesterday." They were all, "Oh, uh, OK?" I gave them the $4 and they were satisfied. And entirely unconcerned, because they didn't even know it had happened, and as far as they were concerned that was a bonus $4 in the till, not the rectification of a Grievous Wrong.

A CVS might be less hand wavey about it, especially since they are physical objects and not bulk consumables you realized you hadn't paid for after it was too late. But presumably that also means you can return the items, or have them properly rung through the register, which should satisfy any concern they would have.
posted by Sara C. at 8:57 AM on November 10, 2012

I worked for 5 years as a lead in retail and had to deal with this a whole 3 times. After the first two people had come in and paid we all laughed at them for actually doing it. The third time was a parent bringing in his kid and paying for the items as a show of personal responsibility. That was cool.

Most of the time we'd get phone calls with extremely worried people afraid they were going to get arrested the next time they came in. Our official response was "if you left our store without paying for something that is our fault not yours don't worry about it. Who was your cashier so I can have a chat with them?"
posted by M Edward at 9:06 AM on November 10, 2012 [5 favorites]

I don't think you need to explain; just go back and either put the stuff back or buy it.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 9:08 AM on November 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Reason for paranoid precaution: in 1987, a friend shoplifted tools from Sears. Around two weeks later the cops showed up at her apartment; we were told her actions and license plate had been captured on security camera. Since your getaway vehicle was a cab, you won't have that problem, but it's not completely inconceivable your face might be on a list posted for security guards.

Personally I wouldn't bother with the whole sealed envelope routine, but you sound (charmingly) vulnerable about this issue of conscience, and I'd hate to think of you being accidentally growled at, even briefly. M Edward's preliminary phone call would be an even more effective precaution.
posted by feral_goldfish at 9:10 AM on November 10, 2012

Does your CVS has self-checkout? (My local one does in Boston.) If so, you could just bring them back, scan them, and pay for them.
posted by maryr at 9:10 AM on November 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

But I agree with posters upthread - I don't think you'll get in trouble going in, explaining the situation, and paying for the items. There is no possible way that would be in the store's interest.
posted by maryr at 9:12 AM on November 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

What is the value of those items? The reason that I ask is that the employees of the store are almost certainly rated on their "shrinkage", and if these items will contribute significantly to their shrinkage percentages, you owe it to them to return them. If they are $2 worth of candy bars, I honestly wouldn't worry about it -- no one other than you will ever notice.
posted by Rock Steady at 9:13 AM on November 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

I have worked more Retail in my life than most sane people would admit to and I am pretty confident telling you that at NONE of the places I've worked (from relatively local places to a large company like Target) would even attempt to get you in trouble or even chew you out if you brought the items back and payed for them. Just take the items and your receipt.

The most likely outcome of this entire thing is that you will restore some faith in humanity for a few employees and they will have an awesome story to tell people.
posted by Twain Device at 9:19 AM on November 10, 2012 [8 favorites]

I accidentally did this with lip gloss at Target. I had my purse in the baby part of the cart, and the lip gloss got hidden underneath it and I didn't remove my purse to checkout. I noticed when I was loading my car, but was running late and couldn't go back in. The next time I was in the store, I took it from my purse and put it on the belt with my other purchases to finally pay for it. It probably would have been better to go to customer service, but I just wanted to clear my conscience so I could gloss without guilt!
posted by cecic at 9:23 AM on November 10, 2012

This is so much LES of a big deal than you are likely building it up to be in your head. I do this all the time because I'm easily distracted. Just walk in, go directly to the customer service desk, and tell them that these items ended up in your bag without being paid for and now that you've realised that, you'd like to pay for them. Just smile and be friendly.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:33 AM on November 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

This happened twice with me when Kid BlahLaLa was a toddler. Once he picked up an item without me realizing it. The other time I was using the stroller as my shopping cart and an item slipped down into a crevice without my realizing it. Both times were at big, corporate stores. Both times I went back and explained what happened, and they couldn't have been nicer about it. I say you'll have no trouble at all.
posted by BlahLaLa at 9:35 AM on November 10, 2012

Phone call.
posted by oceanjesse at 9:57 AM on November 10, 2012

This happens. It's really not a big deal. I left Safeway once and realized afterward that they hadn't rung up my butter. I didn't go back. I was in a hurry and it's a corporate conglomerate. But it sounds like you will be eaten with guilt until you go back. So just go...tell them what happened. Everything will be fine. It's not with getting stressed over.
posted by bananafish at 10:02 AM on November 10, 2012

I think you are a very sweet and honest person. Everyone has or will accidentally walk out of the store with something. I have. Don't worry so much. Give them a call and they will tell you what they would prefer you to do. I doubt they will demand you immediately return to pay for the items.
posted by Yellow at 10:27 AM on November 10, 2012

I seriously doubt they were watching you every second you were in the store, unless you look like a very shady character. I don't fully understand how you were holding your coat as a bag, but it probably doesn't matter. To be honest, I wouldn't even bother. But if you went in there and said "I forgot to pay for these items yesterday" you would not get in trouble.
posted by two lights above the sea at 10:28 AM on November 10, 2012

Just take the stuff back, go to customer service and say you walked out by mistake having not paid for them. Nobody's going to be mad and if there are any security notices out about you, that'll get your record expunged ;-)
posted by tel3path at 10:55 AM on November 10, 2012

I shoplifted without knowing it!

I don't think so. From what I understand of the law, intent is the determining factor, and you didn't intend to shoplift or even know you hadn't paid until later.
So technically you didn't shoplift. But sometimes this is difficult to prove. Go back to customer service and pay for the items.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 11:02 AM on November 10, 2012

Don't go in and put the stuff back - that might look suspicious if you're seen on CCTV or observed by a member of staff.

This happened to me in a supermarket - I realised when I was loading my car that there was something still in the trolley that hadn't been rung through. I took it back in with the receipt, went up to the customer services desk and said I needed to pay for it. It was a very small item, and the customer services rep said "you know, nobody would've known" and I said "I would've known. I like shopping here and I'd feel guilty every time I came in if I hadn't paid for it." She rung it up with a shrug, but I felt my karma balance restored.

I'd say give the CVS a call, explain that when you got home you realised that not everything had been put through the till, explain that it was completely accidental and not the fault of any member of staff, and ask what they'd like you to do - whether there's a specific staff member you need to ask for or whether you can just take them up to the till and pay for them.
posted by essexjan at 11:15 AM on November 10, 2012

My take: if you had been double charged for these items, would you have gone back and gotten a refund or let it go? If the latter, then don't worry about it.
posted by alikins at 11:21 AM on November 10, 2012

I'd caution against trying to discreetly put the items back. Even if you know you're "reverse shoplifting", someone might see and misinterpret your actions. Enter, walk straight to the customer service desk, and explain what happened. You'll make their day. Also, please don't just ignore it because it was just a few cheap items. In a corporate store like CVS, someone's going to get docked for inventory being off. Doesn't matter if it's $1 or $100. Please don't ruin some unfortunate retail worker's day by just brushing it off.
posted by xedrik at 11:25 AM on November 10, 2012 [5 favorites]

I once got into trouble for not charging a customer for a product that I didn't know they had. The customer wasn't deliberately hiding them, I just didn't notice the items. If you do go back, please don't mention who it was that served you, or take the receipt, or mention the time/date this happened in case a manager decides to go through the CCTV to find a cashier to shout at. Be vague - "I was in a few days ago and bought some stuff, but I forgot to pay for these".
posted by Solomon at 11:30 AM on November 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Call them! They might be willing to just charge the amount to a card without you even having to come back in -- I've done before that for people who ate a candy bar and forgot to pay for it until they found the wrapper in their pocket at home, for example, as well as considerably more egregious oversights on both parties' side. Even if you do have to go in though, they're simply not going to call the cops on you -- if they did, as soon as the officer understood you were actively trying to pay for the items, s/he'd be much more peeved with CVS than you.
posted by teremala at 11:46 AM on November 10, 2012

Just go back in and say, "I'm so sorry, I checked my receipt when I got home and realized that these three items didn't get scanned," or whatever variation of that you choose.

This happens to people all the time. (Once I attempted to buy one memory stick and the weirdly-shaped plastic packaging for them stacked tightly and I didn't realize until I got home that I had two stuck together, and they were really expensive!) They generally just take it as a return without doing anything, or ring it through so you can pay for it, or (especially if they're small items and you get the manager) just thank you for your honesty and tell you not to worry about it.

It really is just a thing that happens, though. I was shopping with my toddler one day and he kept yanking things off the shelves and I kept putting them back, and I didn't realize until I got home that he'd yanked some stuff into my purse and I'd walked right out with it. I was MORTIFIED (because that's beyond the usual "oops it didn't scan" or "I didn't notice it in the bottom of my cart" or whatever ... my toddler was being a klepto!). I was really apologetic and embarrassed, but the manager just laughed and said he'd restock it, told me my son was cute, and gave me a 20% off baby items coupon for my trouble.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:51 AM on November 10, 2012

Please don't try to sneak the items back onto the shelf or something. Especially in a pharmacy, and especially depending on what sort of products you're "returning", that might cause suspicion that you've adulterated the product. There was a scandal in the 80s when a woman poisoned painkiller capsules, repackaged them, and put them back on the shelves, and if I were a CVS employee and saw someone putting, say, OTC meds back on the shelf that would be my fear.

Your best option is, as most people here are saying, to go in, speak to customer service, apologize, and ask to pay for the items. Don't name the cashier if they don't press you to, just say "I didn't realize I had these when I checked out, so I want to pay for them now to make things right".
posted by badgermushroomSNAKE at 11:51 AM on November 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

With CVS, who are very corporate, there's a chance you could get an employee or manager in trouble for neglecting to catch a "shoplifter"

FWIW, I worked for a large retail chain once (mall, not drugstore, but still), and we were specifically instructed NOT to pursue shoplifters or play cop in any way.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 11:58 AM on November 10, 2012

I really don't think you need to worry about it, not from CVS anyway. It's not a big deal for CVS- so unless the guilt is really bothering you, I would just chill and pay it forward maybe (buy lunch for a friend or give that money to a homeless person or something)
posted by Rocket26 at 3:55 PM on November 10, 2012

Gosh, I do this all the time. The biggest thing I accidentally left the store without buying is a dinette set (table and four chairs!) from Ikea that I STILL haven't paid for months later because I had already assembled it thrown away the box before I realized I hadn't paid. I called the store and they said to bring the item and my receipt next time I was came to the store. Which... it's a dinette set, and that Ikea is about 100 miles away. 've also walked out of stores with hair accessories, nail polish, and, once, several shirts ON HANGERS HANGING OVER MY WRIST.

If it's something I actually want, and not something I just absent-mindedly walked off with, I just take it through the checkout next time I'm in the store. No one in CVS is paying attention to whether you got that stuff off the shelf or took it out of your purse. Just take it up to the checkout and pay for it. Unless it's a prescription, then you probably should mention it to the pharmacist/tech.

One time I walked away from a street vendor in Istanbul without paying for my (delicious) chicken sandwich. I tried to go back to pay, but Istanbul is a confusing city and I could not find the place again, and for the rest of the day I walked around in fear that I was going to end up in a Turkish prison over my stolen sandwich. But I walk free to this day.
posted by mskyle at 4:06 PM on November 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

Do not just walk into the store with the unpaid items! Call first and ask to talk to the manager, explain the situation and say you'd like to bring the items in and pay for them, and arrange for it to be a time when the manager is there. God forbid you just walk in and things be misconstrued.
posted by zarah at 5:50 PM on November 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Just walk in with the stuff in a pocket, slip it out surreptitiously, and pay at the register.

Ack! Do not do this. As zarah says, call, then go in. They'll treat you like the honest person you are.
posted by BlueHorse at 8:33 PM on November 10, 2012

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